Qataris have begun voting in the country’s first legislative elections for two-thirds of the advisory Shura Council, in a vote that has stirred domestic debate about electoral inclusion and citizenship.
Voters began trickling into polling stations on Saturday, where men and women entered separate sections to elect 30 members of the 45-seat body. The ruling emir will continue to appoint the remaining 15 members of the council.
Polls opened at 05:00 GMT and will close at 15:00 GMT, with the results expected the same day.
The council will enjoy legislative authority and approve general state policies and the budget, but has no control over executive bodies setting defence, security, economic and investment policy for the small but wealthy gas producer, which bans political parties.
Al Jazeera’s Jamal Elshayyal, reporting from a voting station in the capital, Doha, soon after polls opened, said the elections were seen as a major step in the modernisation of the governing system.
“What we’ve seen so far … is quite an active presence of voters,” he said.
“There is excitement among nationals who are able to vote in these elections. The [Shura Council] body has been mainly a consultative one over the past few decades but there has been a push within Qatar to share responsibility, to widen participation, to develop the relationship between the citizen and the state,” he added.
“Through that came the idea or the push to make this body one that people are able to stand in, vote in and to give more powers. This is akin to other countries’ parliament in that it can draft laws, can question and even sack ministers.”
A voting ‘experiment’
Qatar’s deputy prime minister and foreign minister, Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, last month described the vote as a new “experiment” and said the council cannot be expected from the first year to have the “full role of any parliament”.
All candidates had to be approved by the powerful interior ministry against a host of criteria, including age, character and criminal history. They have uniformly avoided debate about Qatar’s foreign policy or status as a monarchy, instead focusing on social issues including healthcare, education and citizenship rights.
The candidates are mostly men, with nearly 30 women among the 284 hopefuls running for the 30 available council seats.
Campaigning has taken place on social media, community meetings and roadside billboards.
“This is a first-time experience for me … to be here and meet people talking about these things that we need,” said Khalid Almutawah, a candidate in the Markhiya district. “In the end, we want to promote our society and we try our best to help our people and our government.”
Al Jazeera’s Dorsa Jabbari, also reporting from a polling station in Doha, said female voters expressed their happiness at being able to take part in such a historic process.
“It’s very important for them to have their voices heard,” Jabbari said. “They believe that any kind of future in this country has to include women as part of that vision to be able to make decisions, and to take part in a government that will have an impact on their daily lives.”
“Some of the issues that the candidates have said they will address if elected has to do with women’s rights as well as [amplifying] their voices within the different sectors in the country,” she added.
The election indicates Qatar’s ruling Al Thani family is “taking seriously the idea of symbolically sharing power, but also effectively sharing power institutionally with other Qatari tribal groups,” said Allen Fromherz, director of Georgia State University’s Middle East Studies Center.
Kuwait has been the only Gulf monarchy to give substantial powers to an elected parliament though ultimate decision-making rests with the ruler, as in neighbouring states.
Candidates will have to stand in electoral divisions linked to where their family or tribe was based in the 1930s, using data compiled by the then-British authorities.
Qataris number about 333,000 – only 10 percent of the population of 2.8 million – but an electoral law approved last July stated only descendants of those who were citizens in 1930 are eligible to vote and stand, disqualifying members of families naturalised since then.
This resulted in small demonstrations in August led by al-Murra tribe members, after some members of a main tribe found themselves ineligible to vote.